© 2009 by H.B. Koplowitz
On July 16, 2009, African-American scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home by Cambridge police investigating a possible break-in. Like the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case, the incident raised questions about racial profiling. At the end of a grueling overseas trip, Gates had to break into his own home because the front door jammed. Someone saw a black man breaking into a residence and called the cops. According to the police report, when asked for identification, Gates accused the officer of being a racist and yelled at him inside and outside the residence. Eventually, he was handcuffed and arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct. President Obama caused a flap when he opined the officer had acted “stupidly.” Days later the charge was dropped, and fences were mended when Gates and the officer met with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in the Rose Garden for the so-called Beer Summit.
It’s unclear exactly what the “teachable moment” precipitated by a stupid encounter between a black Harvard professor and a white Cambridge police sergeant has taught America, except that even President Barack Obama is capable of acting stupidly. Still, it may have shined a light on a fairly common but rarely discussed phenomenon — honkyphobia — which is an irrational fear of white people by black people.
Honkyphobia is but one of many social phobias, the first to be identified being homophobia. People don’t generally like to talk about their social phobias, so I’ll go first: My name is Harold, and I’m a recovering Afrophobic. Scared of getting mugged, guilty about the slavery thing, intimidated by the jive. Actually, I have the full range of social phobias, but it is as a recovering Afrophobic that I believe I have some insight into honkyphobia.
Some of the symptoms of honkyphobia include believing that white people created AIDS and crack cocaine to kill black people, or that no matter how high you rise, you’re still going to be treated like a you-know-what. Another is rooting for O.J. But even if you don’t exhibit those traits, if every time you meet a white person, there’s a moment when you ask yourself if they’re one of the good ones or one of the bad ones, you may be a honkyphobic. Then again, if you don’t, you’re either racist or naive.
Honkyphobics in denial will say that whatever fears or resentments they harbor toward whites are anything but irrational. Rather, they are based on a long history of repression and a lifetime of subtle slights to blatant discrimination.
No doubt that’s a lot of trauma and racial baggage to overcome. But there’s a thin line between synthesizing from experience and profiling from prejudice, just as there is between characterizing and stereotyping. One is rational while the other is visceral.
Another social phobia common in the black community, and truth be told, in many communities, is bluephobia, or fear of cops. Again, as well-founded as that fear may be, if it causes us to do something stupid, that can become a problem. And as they say at the meetings, the first step toward dealing with a problem is acknowledging the problem.
I’m not saying that Henry Louis Gates Jr. is any more or less honkyphobic or bluephobic or any other kind of phobic than anyone else, just as I’m not saying Sgt. James Crowley is a flaming Afrophobic. All I’m saying is that theoretically speaking, if a slightly honkybluephobic person with jet lag who had to break into his own home at the end of a long trip were to encounter a slightly Afrophobic policeman with handcuffs responding to a report of a prowler, sometimes stupid happens.
Is honkyphobia racist? As a recovering Afrophobic, I’m not perfect, but I tell myself that as long as I make an effort not to let my paranoia affect how I treat people, and keep my fear from turning into hatred, I’m not a bigot. If the definition of non-racist is to be color blind, I don’t think I’ll ever get there. I happen to be the same age as a certain professor at Harvard, and I don’t think our generation will ever get there, either.
But America really is changing. Through integration, intermarriage and intermingling, black, white, brown and yellow races and cultures are becoming hybrids — blackspanic, halfrican, whiteno and Amerasian — so much so that future generations will have to find a new way to define themselves and a new way to hate.